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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Lain: a point of resistance to the post-modern fatalistic ‘utopia’

Lain: a point of resistance to the post-modern fatalistic ‘utopia’

The anime Lain presents the watcher with a world at the brink of collapse at a point in which the Wired threatens to infringe upon the ‘feminine’ social realm of human interaction and feeling, engulfing it in a labyrinth of networks promising a utopian technological ‘connectedness’ or transcendence- the pseudo-'collective unconscious'1 of the Wired. At this fragile, transitory edge in history, Lain ultimately challenges the watcher with the ethical and philosophical issue of choice in the schizophrenic post-industrial world through the figure of Lain who personifies this fracturing of social consciousness. On one hand, Lain represents the social, ‘feminine’ sphere wherein one has a stable identity, but has to exist in a structured society and grapple with the realities of loss, betrayal and pain present in the intricacies of human relations. On the other hand, she- in her Wired form- embodies the aesthetic way of existence, wherein identity is characterised by “variability and brilliancy” (Dreyfus 82)2, contact is established through the ‘masculine’ 3 technologies of computers, and gratification is immediate, although continually characterised by a never ending despair and disappointment after the fulfilment of each ‘little death’4. By bringing these issues into the physical realm and taking them upon her body, Lain acts as an archetypical5 Christ-like figure, providing both the watcher and the characters with the question of choice in breaching- through a levelling in perception- the borders of the Wired and the Real World. Thus, she brings forth a point of resistance to the politics of power innate in the masculine technologies of post-modern existence by creating a new 'public' space in experiential and fictive reality much like agora of Greek tradition where a debate on the ethics of cyberspace can resume and hence, decisions can once again occur.

With the introduction of new technologies such as the media and the web in the post-industrial world, a new de-centralised space has been created where everything can be gotten at one’s fingertips, resulting in the breaking of social, political, and spatial boundaries. Hence, one is no longer encumbered by the physical and socially constructed reality of God and Man and is able to manoeuvre freely between borders of space, time, and social class. In the utopian ‘cyberspace’ of Dreyfus, everyone is equal, everything is easily obtainable and the issue of responsibility towards one’s fellow man dissolves with the efficacy of human interaction. In this mode of contact, the complexities of human interaction in typical society are exchanged for the immediacy of net-constructed identities. Likewise, the liberating realm of knowledge, the traditional 'thorn-filled path' toward wisdom, is replaced by the immediacy of obtaining information (here, treated as a new form of currency) at the click of one’s fingertips, removing the need for a mediating force. Through the creation of the Wired in Lain, thus, people are introduced to a whole new way of relating to society and reality where actions no longer have direct social consequences and hence, responsibility can be forfeited. In a variation of the moral allegory, Lain contrasts the masculine and feminine modes of ‘connecting’ present in the aesthetic sphere of existence wherein “enjoyment (is) the centre” (Dreyfus 80) of life and an existence wherein one has the intimacy of human contact, but has to grapple with the realities of “disappointment, humiliation (and) loss” (Dreyfus 80). The latter results in the risk of pain and the pangs of responsibility- as can be seen in Lain’s interactions with Alice-, whereas the former is shadowed by a despair suffered ultimately alone as each libidinal gratification of the moment only serves to temporarily alleviate the heaviness of Chronos6 time.

4 I allude to the french term for orgasm un petit mort which directly translates to ‘a little death’, pointing to the fatalistic nature of pleasure.

6 I refer to Jayamanne’s concept of “Chronos time”, in which “only the past and future subsist, and... subdivide each present, ad infinitum” (Jayamanne 194), contrasting with “Aion” time of the present, which is cyclical and infinite. The latter is ‘heavy’ in its implications for the individual as it contains the entirety of the past, present and future.

In Lain, the schizophrenia innate in the post-modern mind is articulated into a physical form. She takes the split between the Real World and the Wired upon herself in her dual personality and perceptions. Reality, for Lain, is innately flimsy. People dissolve into shadows, shadows dissolve into data, and information- written on the blackboard by her teachers- dissolve into digits. Likewise, the ‘natural’7 world of birds is replaced by the buzzing of telephone lines, signalling the omnipresence of the Wired even in the real realm of human interaction. The Wired hovers treacherously over the Real World, threatening to engulf Nature even in the physical realm. The dissolving of information into digits that Lain sees can be seen as the increasing tendency of the post-modern mind to perceive everything through a macro-lens by which ‘data’ consumption- the ‘smaller narratives’- replace the ‘grand narratives’8- of modernity. Here, the nature of post-modern perception is highlighted by the displacement of natural realities by the electronic 'streaming' of data even in the physical realm. Through Lain’s dual perceptions, the myth of a post-modern existence freed from responsibility in the real world is proved to be false, as the Wired realm is shown to subconsciously ‘seep’ into our perceptions of the real world, inevitably affecting out actions therein. Lain, thus, proposes the idea that one’s existence on the side of the Wired inevitably affects one’s physical existence in the Real World, alluding to the impossibility of a completely schizophrenic existence with two distinct and separated existences and personalities.

7 In referring to Nature as the a female principle, I am alluding to the traditional idea of Nature/the earth as an essentially female force created by, and balancing, the typically male creator.

In addition, as everyone is equal and everything is obtainable in this newly constructed ‘cyberspace’, things lose their meaning, resulting in a technological nihilism. The structural transformation of the public space of society into a utopian ‘level’ ground unfettered by spatial and social boundaries, thus, results not so much in a spiritual transcendence, but a techno-saturated ‘freedom’ whereby “everything is equal in that nothing matters enough that one would be willing to die for it” (Dreyfus 73). Instead of producing an “elite public whose critical debate determined public opinion” (Dreyfus 74), it produces an unmotivated, passive private sphere wherein pleasure replaces principles, and passion is replaced by the hopelessness of decision-making. “A passionless but reflective(ness)” public results, “compared to a passionate one”, where what is “gain(ed) in extensity… it loses in intensity” (Dreyfus 78). The post-modern self is, thus, saturated in a resultant nihilism accompanied with the ‘masculine’ answer to the essentially ‘female’ issue of needing to feel, connect and touch, disabling him from ‘acting out’ against the overwhelming structures of the Wired.

8 The term ‘grand narrative’ was coined by the French philosopher Jean--François Lyotard in his 1979 work “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge” to explain the form of thinking that shaped the modern mind. It refers to the uniting truths and worldviews people subscribe to.

The Cyberia cafe, particularly, exemplifies this idea in its levelling of public and private spaces, mirroring Lain’s nature in its liminal standing between the real world and the Wired. In this constructed space, identity is unstable, and relationships are characterised primarily by the exchange of cyber-commodities. Here, Lain, God of the Wired, is able to breach the borders of the electronic and physical and enter into the real world in order to communicate physically with its inhabitants. However, the constructed name ‘Cyberia’ is similar to the ‘siberia’ of the North, implying that the relations- the ‘connection’- that cyberspace/the Wired promises is intrinsically cold and devoid of warmth, thus contrasting starkly with the ‘warmth’ Lain experiences when she communicates physically with Alice through speech and touch. Likewise, the inhabitants who frequent the cafe drown themselves in a techno-fuelled fugue, consuming cyber ‘drugs’ like accela in order to disassociate themselves from reality. Thus, the relations that cyberspace creates between human beings is proved to be ultimately a poor replacement for the tangible, emotive quality of human contact to affect, rather than effect. Similarly, contact with the man-made god Lain- who is ultimately a technological software constructed by a patriarchal authority- only results in a series of unexplained deaths. Hence, the loss of faith present in post-modernity after the death of the God in modernity ultimately proves irreplaceable due to the overarching structures of masculine technology pervading the networks enveloping the Wired.

As a consequence of the materiality innate in the aesthetic sphere of experience, likewise, a spiritual ‘gap’ is created that cannot be fulfilled through material means. This gap can be seen as a result of a longing for the lost female principle present in the feminine modes of connecting, and is continually highlighted by the various characters that get ‘addicted’ to being connected. The accela drug, for example, enables one’s consciousness to operate at the same speed of the Wired, allowing the user to experience a sped-up ‘ecstasy’ uncannily like a drug providing a high. The gratification of the Wired, thus, is likened to a drug paradoxically providing momentarily relief from pangs of existence present in Chronos time yet killing one bit by bit. In the promise for ultimate transcendence of the physical realm and a re-connection to the lost feminine realm present in the spirituality of cyberspace, a fatality dwells where one is drenched in despair. The watcher is, likewise, presented with the consequence of embracing such an existence in its totality with the figure of the Knight wannabe in the “Society” episode who wears an encumbrance of technical machinery about his body in order to ‘connect’ to the Wired reality. He mistakenly thinks that he will find his lost family and God by descending into the depths of the Wired. Flashes of his family appear to him next to mythical fantastical creatures in the Wired as he maniacally laughs that he is “attached everywhere… (and can hence) send his body anywhere”. The presence of the familial and the mythical in the electronic, here, alludes to the emotional and spiritual investment we put into materiality to provide us with a fulfilment beyond the moment. However, this promise of (re)connection ultimately proves false, as the watcher is presented the ironic, tragic image of the Knight wannabe’s dead figure at the end of the episode encumbered by steel machinery that buzz a meaningless stream of white noise, presumably dead as the result of a failure to connect. Even though he does find “God” in an encounter with the Wired Lain, this causes death, rather than redemption. The road to the higher realms of consciousness that the utopian existence of the Wired promises, thus, proves ultimately fatal, as the Knight wannabe fails to reunite with his family and the larger unit of the lost mythical realm of the feminine he desperately seeks. In the Knight Wannabe’s delusion, Lain implies that the search for a new spirituality to redeem and provide a lost ‘truth’ arrives from the desire to (re)connect to a lost feminine principle. Furthermore, in his death, Lain warns against the complete embracing of the masculine mode of connection through technology, showing the watcher such a reliance results in a regression into the feminine that can have fatal consequences.

In addition, Lain’s continuous hallucinations of her classmate’s ghost and the mingling of the ‘supernatural’ realm with the real realm that occurs as Lain increasingly figures into the hallucinations of network players in the Wired can be see as the “vapors, odd beings, terrors, and deluding images” sent up “in dream, broad daylight or insanity” (Campbell 89). With the repression of ‘natural’ reality of the matriarchal realm and the ‘feminine’ mechanism of social interaction through contact, the supernatural- a product of the irrational, potentially destructive force of the feminine- inevitably re-emerges like the ‘unconscious fumes’ that rise from the ‘Aladdin’s cave’ of the subconscious. Lain, as the archetypical hero, is the ultimate ‘god’, not only in her existence as Lain, god of the Wired created by the Wired God, but as “the seeker and the found.. (existing) inside of a single, self-mirrored mystery, which is identical with the mystery of the manifest world” (Campbell 40). As Campbell states, “the great deed of the supreme hero is to come to the knowledge of this unity in multiplicity and then to make it known” (40). Lain’s purpose, thus, is to- in the conflating of the Wired and the Real World through her continuous hallucinations- bring these essential psychological issues present in the post-modern consciousness into light for the audience, thus creating a new positionality where self-reflection is possible. In addition, her femininity provides a balancing counterpoint to the male God of the Wired, making her a particularly appropriate figure to address intrinsically feminine issues of the lost matriarchal realm.

Lain’s social interactions, likewise, address the social issues present in the post-modern existence. All of her relationships- with the single exception of Alice- are characterised by a coldness. In episode one, we see Lain’s father talking through a wall of computers to Lain; we do not see his eyes, and it appears the ‘faces’ of the computers have become extensions of his personality. The question of the post-modern identity also emerges as Lain constantly questions her identity as various “Lains” are woven in and out of the narrative, yet divorced ultimately from her perception of herself. Lain, thus, reveals the multiplicity of constructed identities one can accumulate in the Web results in a fracturing of identity, rather than psychological progress towards a wholeness present the Jungian concept of Individuation10. In such a way, Lain takes on the psychological issues present in the post-modern way of existence upon herself and presents them to the watcher as a question, pushing the watcher and the characters in the series to make a choice between the social and the aesthetic way of life. Naturally, the Knights see the power innate in her position in shaping the future of the Wired and how people interact with it and thus, seek to manipulate her for their own ends. They recognise that- in being hero-God of the people-, she presents a crucial turning point wherein people are forced to make the personal decision of having to choose between the atomised sphere of isolated existence and the public sphere of actual human interaction.

In the episode “Infornography”, particularly, the psychological issues present in the Wired existence are brought to the watcher in a flashback sequence reminiscent of the information overload present in the Wired. By drawing together the words ‘information’ and ‘pornography’, Lain likens the gratification of information present in the aesthetic sphere to the fatalistic pleasure- the ‘little death’- one experiences through pornography. Ironically, the viewer is brought on this journey towards the ‘Truth’ (a continual pursuit in the Lain universe) of the spirituality promised by Muchluhan’s ‘global village’11 through the technological medium of animation. The story, at this point, reaches its climax, as the borders between the Wired and the real world become increasingly fragile, eventually breaking down, thus allowing the Lain of the Wired to enter into normal human consciousness. Likewise, borders between the watcher and the anime break down, as the watcher, through the emersion of sound and image, is immersed in the ecstatic moment of Wired existence yet brought to the light to the tragedy- and resultant despair- present at its core through an experience mimicking the post-modern way of processing information through disparate flashes. Through a visceral experience wherein the borders between the senses and intellect, viewer and screen break down, the portrait of the tragedy of a completely material, technologically saturated experience wherein materiality becomes the new spirituality is brought to the watcher in a fugue-like juxtaposition of images. A complex weaving of sound, image and data flash across the viewer’s screen, and the viewer feels a surge of libidinal energy, suffering the ‘little death’ through the gratification of information. At this point, questions are explicitly brought to the forefront, as we are questioned repeatedly with the necessity of the human body through flashes of data stating “I don’t need to stay here”, “inconvenient body” and “all this talking has worn me out”. At this point, the watcher is presented with issue of choice as the warm realm of human contact present in Lain’s friendship with Alice together with the pain implicit in such relations (portrayed, here, in the pain Lain feels when she realises she shares the responsibility for the leaking of Alice’s secret) is juxtaposed next to images of the ‘siberia’-saturated ‘cybernetic’ nature of human interaction in the Wired. As the technological realm increasingly engulfs the natural sphere, we are presented with a wasteland of telephone wires swallowing the skyline wherein buzzing becomes the only sound one can hear. Henceforth, we are told in a monotonous voice that the Tachibana cooperation- the inventors of the Wired- “have mapped the human genome”, implying the heralding of the computer era and the arrival of a new public ‘cyberspace’ would bring the promise not only of democracy, but the answer to the meaning of life.

10 Jung’s concept of Individuation refers to the personal journey towards a wholeness, the end point in which one finds one’s ‘true self’. It is a Hegelian notion that posits one’s journey in life is towards a greater goal. As such, it belongs to the category of “grand narratives” forsaken in post-modern consciousness.

The promise of a utopian existence without a body wherein spiritual transcendence can be achieved, however, is proved to be innately farcical by the accompaniment of the garage-saturated sounds of whining guitars that highlight the despair implicit in the new spirituality cyberspace provides. The ultimate idea that “‘a new global mind’ (would) emerg(e) out of digital networks… a union of computer and nature- of telephones and human brains and more” (Wise 185) is proven ridiculous in its idealism, as we see a heap of Lain at the end of the sequence lying on the floor entangled in wires, mentally sucked of all energy and enthusiasm for life, and dangerously close to a ‘software overload’. Here, the masculine machinery of technology is seen as fundamentally incompatible with the female realms of connecting through emotion and feeling in its tendency to encumber rather than liberate. Thus, the vision of a ‘global village’ whereby “higher levels of spirituality leading to a new age of harmony… (compel) commitment and participation” (Wise 185) is false, as it presupposes that the ‘higher’ realms of spiritual consciousness can be achieved through the material masculine structures of networks present in Lain.

Lain, as saviour figure, thus provides the viewer with the tools for self-reflection by presenting two distinct options for survival in the post-industrial era. On one hand, she promises a utopian existence without a body in which the Wired gives ultimate spiritual transcendence and everyone is connected through a vast network of ‘collective unconsciousness’; on the other hand, she represents the fatality implicit in the reality of such an ideal. Through Lain, the ‘collective unconsciousness’ of the Wired is shown not to be that of Jung’s unified ‘collective unconsciousness’ containing the reservoir of human experience through history, but an artificial construct that divorces, divides and even causes a psychological and- potentially physical- death. Thus, the anime Lain ultimately criticises the notion of that materiality can being about spiritual transcendence by parodying the ridiculous nature of trying to access the ‘feminine’ way of connection through masculine structures, positing there is no true alternative to human contact. Furthermore, the ethics of freedom that post-modernity promises is also brought into light by the wake of deaths Lain of the Wired causes in her schizophrenic, dual existence. While the realm of the real is paved with hardship and responsibilities that come with human relations, the alternative post-modern ‘freedom’ proves to have equally incriminating consequences.

By taking on these psychological, ethical and political issues onto her body, Lain acts as a Christ-like figure suffering the consequences of both existences for the audience, bringing the viewer the knowledge- the ‘truth’- of what responsibility, ethics and freedom means in the post-modern existence. Thus, Lain acts as a point of resistance to the patriarchal structures of power inherent in the technology saturated post-modern existence by becoming the material platform by which issues of post-modernity can be discussed outside the confines of screen. The anime Lain, thus, is particularly revolutionary in its ability to subvert its own mediatic medium in its existence as a product of material relations and technological ideologies, bringing to the watcher the self-affirming tools for a true liberation towards a ‘truth’ beyond the confining structures of post-industrial reality.

Works Cited

Serial Experiments Lain - Boxed Set (Signature Series). Dir. Ryutaro Nakamura. Perf. Artist Not Provided. Geneon [Pioneer], 2001. DVD.

The Portable Jung. London: Penguin Books, 1988. Print.

Campbell, Joseph. “Prologue: The Monomyth”. Print.

Doty, William A. “Definitions and Classifications”. Print.

Dreyfus, Hubert. “Nihilism on the Information Highway.” Print.

Laleen Jayamanne. “A Slapstick Time: Mimetic Convulsion.” Print.

Leeming, David Adam. “Introduction: The Meaning of the Myth”. Print.

Wise, Richard. “The Myth of Cyberspace”. Print.

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